Fashion & Beauty

How to Talk to Your Hair Stylist (Really)

June 17, 2014


photo by Photodjo / iStock

photo by Photodjo / iStock

DID YOU ASK to look like Ziggy Stardust? No. You just said, “Maybe some layers…” and the  hair stylist took it from there. You think: Were we even speaking the same language?! Again: no. Hairdressers work with an arcane lexicon of words like “direction” and “movement” and “weight”—oh, they sound like words you know, but they have a whole different meaning to someone wielding scissors for a living. The obvious solution: a Rosetta Stone of salon-speak so that you’ll know the precise beauty parlor parlance—
confidently tossing around terms like feathering, razoring, A-line bob—to help a hairdresser turn the vision in your head into a vision on your head.

I embarked on a one-hour crash course in Stylist as a Second Language, courtesy of Ira Ludwick, owner of the eponymous salon on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. A gracious, articulate man clearly in love with his profession, Ludwick was eager to pass along insider knowledge. He patiently walked me through technical jargon, basics of cuts, techniques and tools, so that I can now give you my best advice about communicating with stylists on their own terms:

Don’t. Don’t even try.

No fault of Ludwick’s; he gave it a good go. Layering, for instance: To me it simply implies that some of the hair is shorter than the rest; to a pro, Ludwick explained, layering means hair is elevated from the part 90 degrees or more before cutting; elevated less than 90 degrees, it’s graduated—okay, got it. But then: “So you create graduation by tension, overdirection and elevation. Graduating hair, you’re stacking to control weight release—horizontal graduation is the strongest form—but if you increase elevation to make it shorter to the successive section, you’re layering, releasing more weight from the shape.” [blink, blink] There’s even possible confusion over the phrase “all one length.” What? Yes: one length, if you measured distance from the cut ends to the floor, versus one length, as in all hairs would be equal length measured from the scalp (bonus points if you remember the Flowbee).

It eventually became clear to me that a customer in a salon is in a foreign country. If you happen to be fluent in their language, fine. But trying to make your way based on a superficial grasp of a few phrases, you’re liable to wind up panicked, in tears and eating kidneys (excusez-moi, rognons sounded delicious)—whatever the haircut version of that is. Lucky for you, though, you’ve been provided a translator: your stylist. While Ludwick was game about giving me a glossary of salon shop talk, “I never expect clients to speak ‘hair-speak,’ ” he assures. “It’s the professional’s responsibility to find some common language.” Phew.

To get the best possible haircut, then, your job is merely to provide all the plain-talk, uneducated info you can. Priority one, sensibly enough for a language barrier, is pictures. Lots of them. Photos of styles you like, styles you like one aspect of, styles that haven’t worked for you; photos of you when you’ve loved your hair, when you’ve hated it. Then go over every one with the hairdresser. “It’s easier for people to say what they don’t want,” Ludwick observes. “ ‘That’s too short, but this is too long, this part’s too heavy. I don’t like the bangs here, but the length is good; I like how it falls around her face, but not this wispy.’ ” Impart wisdom from your own experience—the under-layers refuse to wave, a hint of humidity means instant frizz. Silly as it sounds, you might even bring a written list of idiosyncrasies and preferences, years’ worth of lessons learned the hard way, so you don’t forget to say, “It has to stay off my face,” or “Shorter than this, here, and it poufs like a mushroom.”

Meanwhile the stylist should, in turn, be taking stock of your face, head shape, hair and lifestyle, scoping out your tolerance for upkeep, products and futzing, so she can, for instance, gently caution that without massive gel/pomade/mousse deployment (not to mention bee-stung mouth), you might think twice about going all Miley Cyrus. Once she’s processed everything you’ve shown and told her, incorporated her understanding of you and your hair, and laid out her plan for the cut, take another minute to echo back to her what you heard, make sure you’re in sync, Ludwick suggests.

If all works as it should and you wind up with the perfect cut, ask the stylist to make notes about what he did, and hand him your phone to take pictures from all sides. That way when you go back two months later saying, “Please just do the same thing”— a phrase that terrifies hairdressers, Ludwick reports—he’ll have guidelines that tell him a lot more than another inch of unevenly grown-out hair does.

That all sounds great, but really—multiple pictures, lengthy lists of dos and don’ts, active listening? As someone loath to seem pushy, fussy or vain, I doubted I’d have the nerve to demand so much talk time. “Just like with medicine,” Ludwick counters, “you have to be your own advocate; just like any relationship, you have to make sure that you and the other person understand each other. If a stylist seems annoyed by how much time you need to consult, find another stylist. You’re the boss!”

So, having found a great Living Social deal for Ludwick’s salon, I gave his approach a test run. I brought along six pictures of celebrity styles, an old candid of me on a good hair day and a cheat sheet of wants and musts, past mistakes and misunderstandings. I thought I’d feel like an idiot trotting all this out, but Ludwick’s cheerleading had been curiously empowering (I am somebody! I am somebody! Somebody who deserves a good haircut!). Instead of my usual vague, glancing, apologetic specs (“um, a couple inches off, long layers, a few bangs?”) I spent at least 10 times longer dissecting the photos and pointing out my hair’s peculiarities to my assigned stylist, Nicole (who informed me that the salon automatically schedules 15 minutes of get-to-know-you time for new clients). Then I happily placed my head and faith in her capable hands and relaxed. I walked out a while later with a really good haircut that was exactly what I had wanted. And never once tried to bluff my way through “deconstructed concave cut” or “diagonal forward graduation.”

–Catherine Clifford

2 thoughts on “How to Talk to Your Hair Stylist (Really)

  1. David Rozman says:

    I think proper communication between the hairdresser and the Client is necessary for both of them. Client has to be patient with her hairstylist so that she can give her the best look. Along with that, the hairstylist needs to be a good listener to their clients so that they should know what the client wants with her hair!

  2. It doesn’t really surprise me that hair stylists basically have their own language. Though it’s frustrating if you can’t communicate properly. Overall I think the takeaway I took was to remember that you’re a paying customer and that makes you the boss. If you don’t like your stylist, then get another one.

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